The Women’s Pages, Debra Adelaide

9781743535981When I read Debra Adelaide’s novel, The Household Guide To Dying, I loved it so much that I emailed Adelaide to thank her for writing it. The Household Guide To Dying was a stellar novel in my mind it set Adelaide up to be one of the great Australian women’s voices of our era.

The Women’s Pages was strangely more ambitious than The Household Guide To Dying which deals with Delia Bennet’s foray into her own death. Bennet writes household guides to all sorts of things so when she discovers that she is indeed dying, she decides to write a guide to doing so. The book is so full that it’s hard to describe – I’ll settle with Nicola Walker’s description from the Sydney Morning Herald: “Bennet may have one foot in the grave but Debra Adelaide has created one of the most irrepressible and beguiling heroines to emerge in Australian fiction since Sybylla Melvyn made her appearance in My Brilliant Career.”

The Women’s Pages doesn’t have the same thematic weight of The Household Guide to Dying, but it makes up for this with the complexity of its structure which clearly heralds to readers that Adelaide is a writer of note. In this novel she weaves together a beautiful story with a stunning insight into a writer’s inability to escape the desire to tell a story. She combines these two elements through Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I can hardly do the novel justice with this description. At times I wasn’t entirely certain that Adelaide had pulled off this massive feat, but overwhelmingly there was a greatness tugging at my reader’s senses and it was not difficult to drown in the lives of two fascinating protagonists who so clearly represented women at different times in Australian history.

There is no doubt that Debra Adelaide has a wonderful sensitivity when it comes to writing. There are emotions that hover beneath her words that are almost tangible and it is this that makes reading her work so pleasurable.

 

 

The Widow, Fiona Barton

downloadI’m a huge Lisa Gardener fan and when I spotted this book, The Widow, on the Red Hot Reads shelf at the library, sporting Gardner’s seal of approval – “the ultimate psychological thriller” – I figured it was a good bet.

I wasn’t entirely disappointed. There were certainly captivating elements of this thriller. The protagonist, Jean Taylor, was mostly convincing and seemed complex enough. The plot was well structured and the supporting characters were interesting. But somehow, there was not enough friction in this book for me or perhaps it was too slow or predictable … I’m not entirely sure. I enjoyed reading it but it didn’t leave me quivering or wanting more.

Nine Days, Toni Jordan

20644317I was sure that I had read this book – and indeed, I have.  And it didn’t matter one bit. I loved it. Every part of it. Stark, beautiful, tender and such an immaculate glimpse into life in Australia both today and during the war.

I’m not generally a fan of Australian fiction, but Toni Jordan is the exception. She’s an author whose work never fails to impress and is always diverse and filled with literary surprises of the best kind.

I won’t review it again. I’ll just say that Toni Jordan is a star and I can’t wait to read her latest book – Our Tiny, Useless Hearts.

A Little Life, Hanaya Yanagihara

01bookyanagihara-master180 This book broke my heart. It has taken me three attempts to read it – the first two times I had to stop because I simply couldn’t breath for the weight of all the sorrow. But I persisted. And I’m glad for it. The writing is magnificent. Each sentence is like an orchard or a field of wild flowers in bloom with the soft mountain breeze creating an orchestra of movement and the slow echo of a waterfall or spring shifting in the background. I found myself repeatedly falling into the prose, drowning, not just in the sadness, but also in the sheer beauty of Yanagihara’s prose, the tone, the majesty. I highlighted whole pages, emailed them to my friends, read and reread.

There was so much to love that it is hard to know where to start… For me, the thing that I found most intriguing was the fact that this is a story about the bond of male friendships. It’s rare to read something that so intimately explores not just male characters who are so complex and diverse, but also the ties that bind them. I loved the camaraderie, the at times fraught tension between the individual creative genius and the different connections between these four characters – the jealousies and the love. I loved the honesty. And the lies. And although the sorrow is burdensome, it is also very rich in a way that I have never before encountered.

What also struck me about this book was its driving theme of happiness – What is it? How do we define it? Can we define it?

But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate?

While this thread meanders throughout the novel, it is coupled with the motif of love and friendship and the blurry lines between these two states – “And still, the friendship spooled on and on, a long, swift river that had caught him in its slipstream and was carrying him along, taking him somewhere he couldn’t see.” Yanagihara comes back to this theme repeatedly, exploring friendships not only between these four protagonists but also between them and other characters, and relationships in general – the potential that exists when “both people … recognise the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well.”

Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honoured by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

There is so much to peel away from this narrative but to do so would be to spoil it for those intending to read it. I will only say that I loved it but I hated it at the same time. Part of me wants to read it again. And again. And again. Another part of me wants to bury the memory of this book forever.

The Fence, Meredith Jaffe

4628453360_335x515“I promise you one thing, young lady. Building a fence is not going to keep the world out and won’t keep your children in. Life’s not that simple.”

I have a thing for fences, ever since a History professor of mine during my undergraduate degree set an essay question about the Arab-Israeli Conflict using Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, which ends so poignantly: “Good fences make good neighbours.” I’ve wondered often about this notion and the concept of personal space and delineation, how fencing something out can sometimes equate to simultaneously fencing yourself in, protection and preservation meets isolation. So it was that this book appealed to me immediately.

Meredith Jaffe has done a marvellous thing in this story. She’s brought two such incredibly diverse characters together in direct opposition to tell her story over the construction of a fence.  This book magnificently describes Australian suburban life, epitomised by Gwen Hill who has lived on Green Valley Avenue since it was first constructed. Her house and garden epitomise everything she loves about the street and the neighbourhood. Here she has grown her family, built friendships, nurtured herself and her husband. And into this warm space comes Francesca Desmarchelliers, Frankie, who is everything that Gwen isn’t. She is city chic and concrete to Gwen’s lush gardens, she is unruly and modern to Gwen’s conservatism and she is desperately trying to save her marriage and her family

What evolves is a wonderful insight into the challenges that neighbours sometimes face, into how we engage each other as people and into the empathy that is required to move successfully through this world.

Jaffe’s novel is a delight! She’ll be speaking on a panel of debut authors with Nathan Besser at the upcoming Sydney Jewish Writers Festival – you won’t want to miss this one!

Man in the Corner, Nathan Besser

BesserI just went on a crazy ride with Nathan Besser in his debut novel, Man in the Corner. Crazy because in this novel Besser has woven together a collection of seemingly random threads to create the kind of fiction that has the mind boggling. I’m not even sure how one describes this genre – it’s kind of a psychological mystery verging on family drama with some crime fiction twists to it. It’s filled with strange twists and some intriguingly scary characters. And the strangest thing is that while reading this twisted tale, you can’t help but feel like its protagonist, poor David, who is apparently stuck in a plot that he can’t seem to escape, victim of a series of crimes which have made him into a criminal.

What appealed to me most about this tale though, was the fact that it was set in Maroubra. I live in Maroubra. The places Besser describes, the streets, the cafes and the vistas, are all places that I know and this made my insight into Besser’s tale even more delightful. I dare say it’s the first Australian fiction that I’ve read and enjoyed in a long, long time.

It is easy to see why Simon Baker loves Besser’s book. It will make an outstanding film. It was a delightfully gripping read, although difficult to review without giving away too much of the plot!

Nathan Besser will be speaking at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday August 28th at 4.30pm along with other debut novelists Lexi Landsman and Meredith Jaffe. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to hear from a new generation of authors!

Saved to Remember, Frank Vajda

It is hard to know what is most awe-inspiring about this book – Vajda’s story of survival or all that he achieved in the years following his liberation. Both narratives are extraordinary.

I read this book as I do most Holocaust memoirs, with a deep breath, stealing myself against what is about to unfold and waiting for the triumph of a magnificent spirit. Vajda’s book fulfilled most of the expectations. It describes his family, the life they lead before the war, their relationships and experiences. It explains in stark detail the war itself, how he survived and most specifically his encounter with Raoul Wallenberg at age 9.

Vajda’s introduction clearly sets out his reasons for writing:

I survived by a series of near misses and coincidences.  Although not being mutilated physically, I became scarred emotionally as a result. Being able to recollect in writing these events and their effect on conditioning my subsequent responses is an opportunity I am grateful for…

… This narrative however is secondary to my prime motive of expressing feelings of sorrow and shame, and, as much as any single person can, trying to prevent the recurrence of circumstances that culminate in racial mass murder.

It is impossible not to be moved by Vajda’s story and by the brave clarity with which he narrates it. However, what impressed me most about Frank Vajda is the brief CV which accompanies his entry on the Booktopia website.

Frank Vajda AM, Officer 1st.cl. Royal Order of Polar Star (Sweden), MD FRCP FRACP, is a consultant neurologist, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, Director of the Australian Pregnancy Register of Antiepileptic Drugs, Past President of Epilepsy Society of Australia, International Ambassador for Epilepsy, Member of the International Pregnancy Register Board, Head of the Free Wallenberg Australian Committee and Founder of Raoul Wallenberg Centre of Clinical Neuropharmacology.

This combined with Vajda’s reference to close friend Jacob Rosenberg whose magnificent poetry is beyond inspiring, led me to further investigate Vajda’s CV which I found online, an impressive 50 page document clearly exposing Vajda as ambitious, dedicated, a gifted physician, and a high achiever. I poured slowly through his CV, marvelling at his contribution to academia and his honours, appointments and long list of qualifications. I was left feeling conflicted for here is a man who has achieved greatness as a neurologist, helped hundreds if not thousands of people through his work and changed the face of neurology through his research and so much of all that he has achieved has come about because of the devastation and tragedy of the Holocaust. So much of who he is seems to come as a direct result of all he lost. How does one reconcile these contradictions? Vajda has done just this by making it his mission to honour those who were lost and to bring recognition and honour to heroes like Raoul Wallenberg who saved so many lives.

In my mind, while Wallenberg is clearly Vajda’s hero, Vajda himself is a hero for telling his story and for bringing so much richness to our world.

Not only should you read Frank’s book because of the light it sheds on this dark period of human history; but you should also make sure that you are present to hear Vajda talk about surviving the Holocaust which he will be doing on a panel at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on August 28th.

Whisperings in the Blood, Shelley Davidow

download (1)Reading this book was like being taken gently by the hand and walking into the heart of music. Literally. It was beautiful. A song painted in bright colours and then filled with a shower of stars and then softly faded into delicate hues of autumn and spring and heart ache and wonder. I am positively in awe of Davidow’s writing, of the tenderness of her narrative voices and of the layered strands that she has woven together to create this masterpiece. It is difficult not to gush.

This book made me fall in love with my own grandparents, long to hear their voices and particularly to feel the shudder of my grandfather’s own violin. It made me wonder at my own family’s journey across continents to arrive at this grand Antipodes and I ached for all that was lost in that litany of moves.

I don’t want to reveal too much because, as I tell my students, there’s no point trying to retell a story that belongs to someone else. You will never tell is as well as the person who owns the story. So, all I’m going to do is give you the gift of Davidow’s opening few paragraphs. The rest I will leave you to savour when you find this book and sink into it and drown in the story and its people.

The spring of 1913, and a young man from a remote village in Lithuania steals a ride on a train headed for the city. Everything around him as turned the colour of ash, as the cold seeps across the land, pressing any signs of life deep into the ground.

Perhaps it is written in his blood: a special code which will emerge later in someone else, generations into the future, in nightmares and fears; in someone’s inability to breathe. In Vilnius, the frowning buildings as he arrives stop him from breathing.

He has a sense of impending tragedy. Maybe his lack of breath has to do with the act of leaving. And yet who would ache to leave this behind – this wasteland of grief and broken souls? Pogroms and nights of bloodshed and terror will live in him no matter how far he travels. Loss has encoded itself in the flow of his blood, in the beating of his heart – a ghost that will travel through time, through his DNA.

The future is already written, but he cannot read it. He can only sense its weight, its texture, and he has to believe that anything is better than this. As his life flashes by outside a fast-moving train, his past dissolves. The village and the 1800s have disappeared forever. This hours in the wig factory are gone. He hopes he will no longer feel he must apologise for the act of living.

Go. Find this book. Read it. Now. And then book yourself in to hear Shelley Davidow speak at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.

Steven Amsterdam, The Easy Way Out

downloadThis was one of those uncomfortable books that you just have to keep reading. I kept feeling as though I couldn’t read sitting still, as though I needed to somehow protest the issues being raised by the protagonists – there was too much at stake to simply be passive, a reader on the outside of some grand narrative. But, read it I did, and without launching a rebellion and throughout, my heart ached a soft, quiet song at the thought of what was endured in this painful telling.

Steven Amsterdam is a palliative care nurse. In his acknowledgements, he explains, briefly, the impetus for writing this novel:

Over the years that I have worked as a palliative care nurse, despairing patients or fearful carers have occasionally asked me if something might be done to speed things up. My first answer is short and legal, some softened variant of No. Then I reorient the discussion to pain managements and specific burdens to see if there are any other measures that my excellent organisation can offer them to ease their distress. WE can almost always improve a situation. When we can’t, and when the topic comes up again, part of me wishes I could say, Sure, just let me get the drugs fro you. But another part of me is glad that task is not within my job description.

This is the basis of The Easy Way Out‘s plot; Evan, a nurse involved in a new, hospital run program to help people in the final stages of a terminal illness to die, comes to question his role, the extent of his ability to help people, and the boundaries of his own humanity. It brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘profound’. There is no doubt that Evan’s journey is interesting and the people he assists, who readers briefly encounter as they make their last voyage into death, are equally fascinating. However, what I found truly remarkable about this novel, was Evan himself.

Evan is quite possibly one of the most complex protagonists I have ever encountered. He acknowledges that he is totally committed to his job and indeed, he quite enjoys his role on the outside of various patients’ experiences of dying. He feels empowered by his ability to assist these people. Yet, this is not what makes Evan interesting. Rather, the true depths of his complexity lie in his relationship with his powerhouse mother, the unresolved death of his father and his inability to truly connect to others. Ironically, it is the bond between him and his mother, Viv, that ultimately lead him to find himself and to accept that he is not God.

There is much more to write about this novel but it is hard to discuss without spoiling the plot and revealing too much. Instead, you should just read the book and then take a long hard look at your own humanity and ask the question: Would you help someone end their life?

You can hear Amsterdam and other amazing authors speak at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival which takes place on August 27-28th at Waverley Library, Bondi Junction. Amsterdam will be on a panel entitled ‘We Need to Talk About Dying: Facing the Inevitable’ with author Leah Kaminsky and Rabbi David Freedman.

Clouds of Glory, Millie Phillips

contentMy children’s school has a wing endowed in the name of Lynette Phillips. I had never questioned the legacy of this Lynette. Regularly I walked by this wing and noted the sign and thought fleetingly what a lovely way this was to commemorate someone. The school I attended also featured a tribute to Lynette, but that too I never questioned.

It was only when someone handed me this book that I realised that the Lynette Phillips whose name graces my children’s school was actually the daughter of Millie Phillips, one of the most generous philanthropists that the Sydney Jewish community has ever known.

There are two ways to approach a review of this book – from a literary perspective and from a narrative perspective. Rather than critique the literary qualities of Millie’s book, I’m going to focus on the narrative because I was so taken by the story that it seems worth discussing.

After reading this book it is impossible to deny that Millie Phillips is a strong, committed and driven woman. Her story is fraught with incredible trials and tribulations, and with abuse and trauma. On the one hand, Millie is a business woman, building an empire, but behind closed doors she seems to be powerless to battle her abusive husband and dysfunctional family. How she reconciled these two realms is hard to fathom. But clearly she did because in one sense she triumphed – she survived.

What didn’t survive was Millie’s relationship with her children and in fact the book itself is a kind of love story, a testimony to the depth of her connection with one of those children, Lynette, who joined a cult and self-immolated at the age of 24. Parts of this memoir read like an elegy to Lynette and the enormous loss that Millie suffered when she died.

There is so much complexity in this memoir that it is difficult to explain – it is hard not to be in awe of all that Millie accomplished and the grandiosity of her vision about everything she attempted – nursing homes, mines, life itself. At the same time, it is impossible not to feel her sorrow.

What has stayed with me is that Millie Phillips is a woman from whom one could learn a great deal, a woman I would quite like to meet but never cross.

For those of you planning to read this memoir, one word of warning: to me it seemed that this book was written by two different people. The first part is quite simply magnificent and captivated me entirely, drawing me in to the narrative and the emotion of the telling. It is eloquent and brilliant. The second part lacks this quality. I read it nonetheless, but I couldn’t help thinking that there were two voices speaking here – three if we count Lynette. My advice: read the first part and love it and love Millie for all she represents for women in our age and then stop and read something else.